From Jane Friedman:
There are a number of ingredients that make up a commercially successful novel, regardless of genre. Scenes that end with high moments that deliver a punch in the last lines. Evocative, rich sensory detail. Dynamic dialogue that accomplishes much more than conveying information … and the list goes on.
But the greatest and most understated ingredient of a commercially successful novel is microtension. And few writers understand what this is and how it can be used brilliantly in fiction.
A constant state of tension
Tension is created by lack. Lack of understanding, lack of closure, lack of equilibrium or peace. When your readers have questions, that creates tension. When they need to know what happens next, that is tension.
Masterful writers keep their readers in a constant state of tension. And that’s a good thing.
But here’s something to keep in mind: our characters may be tense, but that doesn’t mean readers are tense in response. A character with a tightened fist or clenched jaw does not ensure readers will respond in the same way. And that might not even be the desired response a writer is hoping for.
What the characters think, feel, and show must be carefully executed to evoke the desired emotional response in readers.
The tension we writers want to focus on most is the tension our readers feel. If we don’t keep them in a state of expectation, they’ll start nodding off, and next thing you know, our novel slips unread to the floor.
That means getting tension on every page. How is that possible?
By focusing on microtension.
The difference between tension and microtension
Just what is microtension? Just as the prefix suggests, it’s tension on a micro level, or in small, barely noticeable increments. Your big plot twists and reversals and surprises are macro-tension items. And those have great potential for sparking emotional response in readers. But microtension is achieved on a line-by-line basis.
For example, anytime a character has conflicting feelings, you have microtension. Microtension can be small, simmering, subtext, subtle. Even the choice of words or the turn of a phrase can produce microtension by its freshness or unexpected usage.
Microtension is created by the element of surprise. When readers are surprised by the action in the scene, the reaction of characters, or their own emotional reactions, that is successful microtension at work.
A sudden change in emotion can create tension. A character struggling between two opposite emotions creates tension. Odd contradictory emotions and reactions can create microtension.
Microtension is created when things feel off, feel contradictory, seem puzzling.
Maybe that sounds crazy, but if characters are sitting around happy with nothing bothering them, you have a boring scene that readers will stop reading. Sure, at the end of your book, you might have that wonderful happy moment when it’s all wrapped up and the future, finally, looks bright, but that’s why the book ends there.
Let’s take a look at part of the opening scene of the 2012 blockbuster best seller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The characters, Nick and Amy Dunne, greet each other one morning—like any married couple, we’d expect.
At the start of the scene we get this strange thought in Nick’s head that seems to be interrupting the typical “wake up in the morning” ritual we tend to experience each day:
The sun climbed over the skyline of oaks, revealing its full summer angry-god self. Its reflection flared across the river toward our house, a long blaring finger aimed at me through our frail bedroom curtains. Accusing: You have been seen. You will be seen.
The sun is not warming and bright and inviting; it’s angry, accusatory. We immediately are piqued with curiosity—What is Nick feeling guilty about? What has he done? That alone might get many readers turning pages.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman